College players fine-tune skills in league known for producing pro prospectsBy BRIAN McTAGGART
Copyright 2002 Houston Chronicle
Baseball has become as much a part of Cape Cod in the summers as the pristine Massachusetts beaches, lobster dinners and quaint fishing villages that are indigenous to the area.
Each summer, the best college players from around the country converge on this tourist haven southeast of Boston for what will undoubtedly be one of the most important summers of their lives.
The prestigious Cape Cod League, a wooden-bat league that's been around nearly as long as the game, has vaulted some players to terrific careers and ripped the hearts out of others. But no matter the results on the field, those who've spent time in the Cape say it's an experience of a lifetime.
"It was two of the best summers I've probably ever spent," Astros first baseman Jeff Bagwell said. "It's when baseball was fun."
Like most hitters, Bagwell struggled to reach .200 his first year in the Cape League, but came back a year later and batted around .300. Bagwell, who played for the Chatham A's in 1987 and 1988, credits his time in the Cape League for giving his career a boost.
"I went down there my first year and Albert Belle was there and Robin Ventura, and Robin was supposed to be the best player on the planet," Bagwell said. "I watched all the guys that were playing, and I felt like, `Man, I'm not that far behind these guys.' I think it really helped me out mentally.
"I think that's why I was drafted as high as I was because I played down there. It was one of the best experiences I've ever had."
Formed in 1885, the 10-team league has for years been considered the place for college players to spend their summers. The Cape League operates for eight weeks from June until early August, with each team playing a 44-game schedule.
There are usually around 10 major-league scouts at any Cape League game, with a record 150 former Cape League players selected in the 2001 draft, including seven in the first round. A typical year will see about half of the league's 230 players drafted.
There are 29 college players from Texas on Cape League rosters this year -- 10 from Baylor, five from Rice and Texas A&M, four from national champion Texas, two from Houston and Southwest Texas and one from TCU.
The list of former major-leaguers who spent time in the Cape League reads like an All-Star Game roster, including Nomar Garciaparra, Todd Helton, Barry Zito, Jeff Kent, Frank Thomas, Mo Vaughn and Jason Varitek.
In addition to Bagwell, Astros Craig Biggio, Lance Berkman, Billy Wagner and Geoff Blum played in the Cape League.
"It was a good experience," said Berkman, who played for the Wareham Gatemen in 1996 while at Rice. "From a baseball standpoint, it was a real good experience getting to play with wood bats against a high level of competition. I did pretty well. I didn't hit many home runs, but I hit for a real high average."
The teams in the Cape League recruit players just as colleges do, with a maximum of 24 players on each roster. Baylor coach Steve Smith is sold on the Cape League so much that he has 10 players competing this year.
"The competition speaks for itself," Smith said. "It's always very competitive, but beyond that, it's just the way it's organized. The fields are nice, they don't worry about umpires not showing up, and you don't have guys getting shipped in and out on a weekly basis. It's just very professionally done."
To be eligible to play in the Cape League, players must have a year of college eligibility remaining, which means the rosters are made up of mostly players coming off their freshman or sophomore seasons. There are a handful of juniors who aren't happy with where they were drafted and plan to return to school.
Spring's Stephen Ghutzman, who spent the last two seasons at Wake Forest but will play at UNLV his senior season, is a veteran of three Cape seasons.
"Everybody that comes up here is a great player, and everybody is the best player or one of the best players on their college team with a metal bat," said Ghutzman, who's hitting .262 this year for the Cotuit Kettleers. "But when you come down here, your average drops. You're facing the best pitchers in the country night in and night out, and when they go to the bullpen, the guy coming in is the best from whatever school he came from. It's not easy."
The players stay at the homes of local residents, called "house parents," who feed them and give them a place to sleep. But the players pay a small fee each month for room and board, depending on the house and the team. What's more, the players are offered the chance of a part-time job, though few work.
"The people I've been staying with treat me really well and have dinner waiting on you every night and take care of you," said Rice first baseman Vincent Sinisi, who plays for the Falmouth Commodores. "It's beautiful weather, and it's a lot of fun playing baseball every day with no practicing. My house mom is one of the best cooks I've ever seen. Seafood, steaks, whatever. She cooks everything."
Players aren't the only ones high on the Cape League. College coaches like to send players to the Cape because of the high level of competition, as well as the structure of the league.
"There's a high degree of reliability in terms of the housing and just the whole experience of the kids," Smith said. "You want to make sure your guys go off and have a good experience, and I've never had anybody go to the Cape that had a bad experience, and I've had them play at just about every different place up there."
Rice's Wayne Graham, who coached the Hyannis Mets in the Cape League in 1988, has Sinisi, outfielders Dane Bubela and Austin Davis and pitchers David Aardsma and Jeff Niemann playing in the Cape this summer.
"It's a greatly organized league where you can play a lot of games and you don't have to travel much," he said. "The longest trip is an hour from one end of the Cape to the other, from Wareham to Orleans. It doesn't tax the guys physically, it's not real hot and they play in front of good crowds.
"There are good crowds and good coaches, and it's the best competition you could possibly imagine with the wooden bat. Basically, it's a place for a guy to go to see what he needs to do to get better."
Because most scouts know what the players can do with aluminum bats by watching them during the college season, the Cape League started a trend when it switched to wooden bats in 1988. Going from metal to wood has humbled more than a few players.
"What you'll commonly see is a guy who doesn't do quite as well as expected in the Cape come back and really hit the weights and get stronger," Graham said. "Basically, all these kids that go to the Cape want to play pro baseball."
Of course, a player who's used to knocking the ball all over the park with a metal bat can have his confidence shattered with a poor performance in the Cape League. But Smith said the good outweighs the bad.
"Some of them are in a little over their heads up there right now," he said. "But I've watched how other team's kids have responded to that, and I've seen other teams send kids up there who were in over their heads, too, but it still made them better and made them tougher. Used to, I was scared to send a guy up there and get his confidence shattered, and he'd never be able to hit again, but I'm more willing to take a chance now."
After nearly breaking Berkman's single-season school record with a .428 batting average this season at Rice, Sinisi entered this week hitting just .195 with no homers and six RBIs.
"It took me a while to adjust to starting a whole new season and the wood bat, but I've been feeling better lately," he said. "I played with the wood before, but I didn't expect to hit the way I have. It's been a little surprising.
"You come in here and get to see the best pitching every night and that helps you. Getting the experience of hitting with a wood bat is very helpful. Going back to the (college) season after seeing all those great pitchers is going to hopefully help me next year."
But for every hitter who feels helpless with wood in his hand, there's a pitcher who suddenly feels better about his capabilities.
"The pitchers get lulled to sleep a little bit because they don't have to be as good, especially if they throw hard," Smith said. "You can go up there with a fastball and be successful, and (Baylor pitcher) Steven White has been successful up there. He's had more success in the Cape than he's had here because he's got a good fastball."
The league, which was the subject of a movie last year in which Freddie Prinze Jr. portrayed a Cape League player who falls in love with a local girl, is also a hit with the public.
The games are free for the fans, who are asked to give donations during games. Teams draw anywhere from 1,000 to 3,500 fans per game, depending on the day of the week and whether they have lights.
"People just love it," Ghutzman said. "They come out here to watch us, and it's a big deal to them."
Whether it's fans, coaches or players, everyone agrees the Cape League is an experience like none other.
"Not only do you get to play good baseball, but you get to see another part of the country," Graham said. "That area of the country is particularly rich in history. You're only 50 miles from Boston and can go to Red Sox games and go see the historical sights, and Cape Cod itself is a unique environment. It's an opportunity for kids to grow, but in ways more than just baseball.HoustonChronicle.com -- http://www.HoustonChronicle.com | Section: College Baseball
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